Florida's shameful distinction as the nation's leader in barring felons from voting does not serve public safety or the economy of the state. This outsized problem was highlighted again this fall as a national advocacy group called attention to how felons across the country were being excluded from the 2014 midterm elections, silencing a huge population from the political process and creating a void in communities as a result.
Florida far outranks other states in the number of felons who are disenfranchised from civic life, according to a survey by the Sentencing Project. The group, using 2010 data, reports that 1.5 million felons in Florida have lost the right to vote, about 10 percent of the state's voting population. Florida's number accounts for one-fourth of the 6 million felons who have lost their voting rights nationwide.
Denying felons an opportunity to fully transition back into free society reinforces the stigma of a criminal history. It also furthers the likelihood of failure by making it harder for felons to land jobs or become involved in civic life.
These cases are handled in Florida by a clemency board composed of the governor and three Cabinet members. Former Gov. Charlie Crist relaxed the rules in 2007, creating an easier process for nonviolent felons to regain their civil rights, including the right to vote. Under those changes, which still required felons to complete their sentences and comply with probation and restitution orders, 154,000 people had their rights restored. But in 2011, shortly after taking office, Gov. Rick Scott and the new Cabinet scrapped the streamlined process, bringing it to a virtual standstill. Under Scott's tenure, as of September, only 1,589 people had their rights restored.
Keeping felons from moving on with their lives and assuming productive roles in society serves no legitimate purpose. Studies show that felons whose rights have been restored commit new crimes at about one-third the rate of other ex-inmates. In its annual report this year, the state's Commission on Offender Review (formerly the Florida Parole Commission) noted that of the 911 people whose civil rights were restored in 2012 and 2013, only one person had a new felony conviction.
Now that another election has passed, the clemency board should remove the unnecessary barriers that keep ex-felons from getting back on track. Having their civil rights restored is a practical step in getting former inmates a job, a voice and a deeper stake in their communities. It is unrealistic to believe that those leaving state custody can afford to wait years after serving their sentences to start over. The clemency process exists to offer a transition back to lawful society. Florida needs to use it, instead of turning its back on a population that with the right support could go straight.